The recitations in Voices of the Lost are searing. Yet the construction of the novel – the device of found letters, the late addition of a heroic postman keeping a register of what cannot be delivered – creates an uneasy space where contrivance is an insistent part of the fabric. Barakat’s desire to channel certain experiences is vivid; as one character puts it: “It was a desire to insert myself into the logic of a man I do not know … a logic that doesn’t ask for the consent of others …” Occasionally, thematic investigations threaten to replace depth of character.
At times the second-person voice feels overly self-aware, as though the author is anxious to account for the novel’s emphasis on interiority: one narrator remarks: “Here I am again, spouting nonsense”. “If I go on talking to myself like this, I really will begin to look mad”, writes another. Marilyn Booth’s translation reads smoothly, but some stylistic tics just don’t travel well: a line such as “Life unleashes its storms on us and we are no more than feathers whirling in hurricane winds” sounds corny in English but is perfectly fine in literary Arabic, where such flourishes are part of the fabric.
In an unnamed country six unnamed people write letters that are never sent. Instead, they are found (down the side of a plane passenger seat, left in a hotel room) by the next person to write. From the lives described we know they are in a war-troubled part of the Middle East, but that is all. The novel won the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2019. Its narratives are emotionally punchy — a man tortured into working for his oppressors, a mother pushed into prostitution. In the end, though, the dogged anonymity makes it all too distanced.